RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Could the White House and Congress actually act on legislation aimed at curbing gun violence? Act may be a strong word, but it does seem that there may be some talk about it.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced yesterday that the Senate will debate gun laws when Congress returns this fall.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: But what we can't do is fail to pass something. The urgency of this is not lost on any of us.
MARTIN: That's McConnell in an interview with WHAS, it's a local radio station in his home state of Kentucky. So what might that something look like?
NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis is following us and is in our studios. Hi, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What is Senator McConnell proposing?
DAVIS: He's promising a debate. He's not promising an outcome just yet. It's clear in that interview that he's not interested in taking up a broad gun debate but a more narrow one. And he said he's not interested in taking up things like the so-called assault weapons ban. This is what he said.
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MCCONNELL: We had that ban for about a 10-year period. There’s a good deal of dispute about whether it actually had an impact or not. It's certainly one of the front and center issues I think with probably background checks and red flags would probably lead the discussion.
DAVIS: We should note there is already a background check bill on the table, it passed the House earlier this year. I would note though that President Trump threatened to veto it when it passed.
MARTIN: Right. So why is this happening? I mean, Mitch McConnell hasn't wanted to pass legislation related to gun control, and he hasn't really wanted to have any debates about it on the Senate floor. So what's going on?
DAVIS: He is certainly still a very strong supporter of gun rights, he also made that clear. But we have seen some movement in the Senate among some Republicans - people like Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - saying that on this question of background checks and red flag laws, they do think they could act. And I would say that McConnell said that President Trump has been a factor here. He has been speaking to him this week, and the president told the leader he wants something done.
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MCCONNELL: The president called me this morning about this. He's anxious to get an outcome, and so am I. And I believe the Democrats will have to just admit that it's better to get a result than just engage in this sort of endless point scoring that has a tendency to occur after one of these awful, awful incidents.
DAVIS: One other caution is there's no real timeline for this. He said they would do it when they return this fall, but he didn't say specifically when, just they'll take a closer look at it.
MARTIN: All right, Sue Davis, stay with us. We're going to get the White House's view of all this with Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley on the line. Hogan, thanks for being here.
HOGAN GIDLEY: Absolutely. Thanks so much for the time.
MARTIN: So we heard leader McConnell say that the president wants to get something done - wants a result, wants an outcome. What outcome?
GIDLEY: Well, he doesn't want something that just makes us feel good. He wants something that actually goes to make American communities safer, that actually goes to prevent something horrific, something tragic, like these two shootings, from ever happening again. And that's what we're trying to do.
We're looking at all options, both legislative and executive, to take a serious not just look at the problem but an approach to getting something accomplished to meet the goals I just mentioned.
MARTIN: Let's talk about what that could look like from the president's point of view. Does he support universal background checks, the likes of which are included in the House bill Sue mentioned that passed on a bipartisan basis back in February?
GIDLEY: All right. Well, I'm not going to get ahead of what he will or won't support. We have to have something that comes to his desk before we'll have those conversations. But...
MARTIN: I guess what I'm asking is he vetoed it - or I'm sorry. He threatened to veto that bill. Has he had a change of heart?
GIDLEY: Well, he wants the American people to be safe. And he wants measures as it relates to gun laws and that relates to background checks and that relates to, you know, systems in place that actually go to solve the problem. And that's what he wants to do.
You and I both know that the background checks that are being promoted and proposed so far would not have stopped either one of these shootings. So it goes back to my original statement, which is the president wants something that actually works, not something that actually makes people feel good.
MARTIN: So what's...
GIDLEY: He wants it to accomplish the goal of making things safer, not just some show legislation that doesn't do anything.
MARTIN: So - I understand what you're saying. It sounds like the president doesn't want something incrementally. He wants something substantive. Would that include an assault weapons ban? Just taking the weapons off the street.
GIDLEY: Again, I'm not - right. I'm not going to get ahead of what the president will or won't support. I mean, you and I are aware of the statistical data - the assault weapons ban didn't necessarily work under the Clinton administration, according to their own data. Mitch McConnell just alluded to that there.
Eighty-plus percent of all crimes are - excuse me, homicides in this country that are committed with firearms are committed by people using handguns. So, you know, and what does an assault weapon look like? What is it - what constitutes an assault weapon?
MARTIN: I think there are some...
GIDLEY: Those are questions we need to have a conversation about going forward.
MARTIN: Right. There are some pretty clear definitions. Let me ask you - a Republican, Adam Kinzinger, in the House has suggested of banning high-capacity magazines. Is that something the president could support?
GIDLEY: Again, anything that goes to make the country safer and American communities safer, the president's willing to look at. He said in that speech on Monday that he shared in the sadness but also the outrage and anger of people that have experienced this unspeakable evil. And he's looking at all of that...
MARTIN: I understand, Hogan, but the reason we have you on is to give us a sense of what the president would support.
GIDLEY: No, I understand. And I'm telling you what - I'm coming on to tell you what he would support, that's something that actually goes to address the problem instead of just making people feel good. And all the times that we have...
MARTIN: Would he support raising the age to buy a firearm to the age of 21?
GIDLEY: And oftentimes in these debates, when something tragic like this happens and Republicans come forward and Mr. President says, I'd like to look at some potential things to make communities safer, the left immediately jumps to - well, if you don't agree with everything we want, then you're responsible for these shootings. And that's a horrible place to be. It's a disingenuous argument. It's disgusting, and it's dangerous.
As we move forward, we have to come together. The president said he wants to talk to Republicans and Democrats. You heard Mitch McConnell just now said the president called him and said, we have to get something done, Mitch. The president is leading on this issue, unlike people in the past.
MARTIN: But what does he want to...
GIDLEY: He wants to get something done. We've already passed the fix NICS legislation, the STOP School Violence Act. And those were bipartisan measures because for once, both sides put down their guard and had an open conversation about what we need to do. And we got something on the books that would potentially save lives.
MARTIN: I understand, which everyone wants to happen. I guess before we end our conversation, can you give me one issue - one piece of legislation that the president is leaning towards supporting right now?
GIDLEY: Well, he's obviously talked to - mentioned to me about their piece of legislation. There are things in there that are that are acceptable.
But listen. The person in Dayton, for example, had the kill and the rape list. We all know about that. One of the reasons we couldn't see that is because of HIPAA laws. But there are crisis exemptions for HIPAA laws that we can potentially push aside for a moment and get back in someone's history to find out if they have - if they've done something in the past that would trigger some type of red flag, for example.
GIDLEY: The president's talked about those red flag laws. But that specifically right there - the background check wouldn't have stopped the shooting in Dayton, but potentially a crisis exemption for the HIPAA laws would.
MARTIN: That's interesting...
GIDLEY: And we can see that person's past. And we could see what they wanted to do. And we could have taken the gun from that person.
MARTIN: All right. White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley. We do appreciate your time. Thank you.
GIDLEY: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: I want to bring back NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis, who was listening. Sue, what struck you?
DAVIS: Well, I think you see the conflict that we have of people talking past each other here and that the White House is calling for stronger gun measures but they can't say what they would be.
And so many Republicans on Capitol Hill are looking for leadership from the president here because if they're going to take a tough vote on gun legislation, they're going to want cover from the president. So in some ways, the debate is hard to move forward, unless the president is going to be very clear about what he would sign.
What he did say - what is interesting is this expansion of HIPAA laws or health care disclosure in order to block gun sales. That is a very interesting but very controversial way to go forward. Because the mental health community would say that they are being unfairly maligned in this debate.
MARTIN: NPR's Sue Davis. Thank you so much.
DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.